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The Coronavirus Coups Are Upon Us

Emergency contagion measures are quickly eroding democracy worldwide.

Vladimir Zivojinovic /AFP /Getty

As enabling acts go, Viktor Orbán’s might be one of the most sweeping since Hitler got his in 1933. On Monday, Orbán—the quasi-fascist former Communist who has dragged Hungary to the far right since becoming prime minister a decade ago—secured his parliament’s sign-off on a law that effectively makes him a dictator until he decides the coronavirus emergency is over.

At the beginning of March, before Hungary had a single infection, Orbán had blamed foreign migrants for the spread of Covid-19 and sealed his country’s borders to noncitizens. The nation now has more than 600 confirmed cases and 26 dead, figures that may reflect gross underreporting. Most societies might see that as evidence that Orbán’s authoritarianism doesn’t work, but he’ll get plenty more leave to try now: The new law suspends elections, mandates imprisonment up to five years of anyone spreading information “that alarms the public or impedes government efforts to protect people,” and permits Orbán’s government to rule by decree or invalidate existing laws as it sees fit for as long as it deems necessary.

“When this emergency ends, we will give back all powers, without exception,” Orbán said Monday, convincing no one. By Thursday, his deputy had proposed a ban on legal recognition for transgender people.

The world was already well dipped in a brine of authoritarian ambitions before 2020 threatened it with contagion. But just as the coronavirus and its devastating effects have exposed much of the world’s citizenry to the limits of its leaders’ power, the crisis has given those leaders powerful tools of repression: home quarantines, forced reliance on trackable electronic communications, dependence on government resources and information.


“In the long term, the pandemic might undermine autocratic leaders—as the usual tactic of blaming scapegoats fails and citizens come to appreciate the value of expertise and functioning institutions,” political scientist Florian Bieber predicted in Foreign Policy this week. “But if strongmen are threatened with a loss of legitimacy, they’re likely to double down on their authoritarian practices and take advantage of the state of emergency to consolidate power.”

That’s borne out so far: Orbán’s coronavirus coronation is just the most egregious of many global power-grab examples. “During the existence of the disease, the rules of completely new relationships will apply,” Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, warned his people in mid-March, promising action against “enemies who are among us, the elements calling themselves opposition, the traitors who … seem to want riots to happen.” Serbia’s right-wing leader, former Milošević aide Aleksandar Vušić, has flooded the streets of Belgrade with armed soldiers to enforce his own emergency rule by decree. Turkey, Thailand, and Cambodia are arresting opposition organizers, bloggers, artists, and random social media posters for making public complaints about lax screenings or government malfeasance. Ethiopia postponed its first election in five years; Bolivia, too, has canceled a key election. Turkmenistan has reportedly criminalized utterances of the word coronavirus.

But let’s not pick on small states. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, a bloodthirsty Trump ally, publicly threatened to shoot dead anyone who violates the nation’s lockdown Wednesday. “Do not intimidate the government. Do not challenge the government. You will lose,” he vowed. Duterte has also been granted emergency powers similar to Orbán’s, though Philippines supporters of Duterte failed in getting him his desired powers over private businesses. Longtime Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who should be out of government and in jail, has initiated a “coronavirus coup” by instituting invasive cellphone surveillance of suspected coronavirus carriers; closing the parliament and blocking his main rival’s attempts to form a government; and shutting down Israel’s courts, which had the side benefit of postponing Netanyahu’s trial for bribery and corruption.

Underscoring all this chaos is the naked cynicism, incompetence, and corrupt opportunism of the ruling parties in China, Russia, and the United States, once the most formidable three-fifths of the United Nations Security Council, now reduced to an axis of weasels. China’s suppression of the basic facts about its outbreak—and its targeting of tellers of those facts—will cost millions of lives. So, too, may the virus denialism of Vladimir Putin, who is in the middle of a recession-fueling gas price war with Saudi Arabia and was forced to postpone a referendum to rig the Russian constitution so that he could stay in power into his eighties. Both nations have attempted to position themselves as the real global grownups, urging the world to accept their shipments of substandard medical equipment and their professions of competent leadership, when the deficiencies of both are clear to all.

But above all, it is the capriciousness, the mendacity, and the unmistakable stupidity of Trump that has truly made the rest of the world realize that its greatest nations are crumbling tenements whose owners barely pretend to give a damn about most of their residents, much less any neighbors down the street. Trump’s aggressive ignorance at the outset of the crisis, his continued incoherence, and his inability to put states’ survival ahead of his petty ego trips have all but assured that the virus will kill more Americans this year than the Korean and Vietnam Wars combined. As The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser declared on Thursday, “the coronavirus is the world’s only superpower.”

As his nation-state’s brand tumbles, Trump is trying to cling to power like all his tinpot emulators. This week, amid the economic turmoil and growing deaths, his campaign has gone looking for a way to rig his increasingly tenuous November reelection bid with new attempts at voter suppression. At the same time, he’s using long-winded, Putin-like live coronavirus updates as stand-ins for canceled campaign rallies where he disseminates self-serving bullshit and manipulates public opinion, albeit with little success.

Nothing, however, captures the “free” world’s despotic deficit in leadership like the minor flap caused Thursday by Trump’s de facto coronavirus czar—his unqualified, extravagantly idiotic son-in-law, property baron Jared Kushner. Pressed by reporters to explain why the White House wasn’t releasing more protective medical equipment in the National Strategic Stockpile to states that needed it most, Kushner pushed back with inanity. “The notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use.”

Reporters then noted that Kushner’s argument was contradicted by the official government website for the National Strategic Stockpile, which described it as the “nation’s largest supply of life-saving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for use in a public health emergency severe enough to cause local supplies to run out.” By Friday morning, the Trump administration had rewritten the website so that it supported Kushner’s bent reasoning, calling the stockpile a “supplement” to “state and local supplies during public health emergencies. Many states have products stockpiled, as well.”

Making troublesome facts vanish by bullshitting and doctoring the sources has long been a key tool in the authoritarian’s kit. But rarely has it been used by this many global powers at once, and with this much gusto. “The commissar vanishes,” as they say. This time, global democracy may disappear with him.